ND fans, I owe you an apology. I think I might be a curse on this program or something, especially when we're away from home. I've been to four road games in the last two years and two bowl games in the last four years and we've lost all of them. 0-6 for me seeing ND outside of ND stadium since I walked out of Heinz Field after ND demolished Pitt in the opener of the Charlie Weis era in 2005. Charlie, if you want to send me a check to keep me from going to the Pitt game this year, by all means do so. I would understand.
Just an excruciating loss on Saturday. The saddest part of being an ND fan these days is that I now spend these games just waiting for the other shoe to drop. And that's exactly what happened. As I was standing there in the upper deck of the Big House watching Greg Matthews pull in that catch in the end zone, it felt like deja vu from every heartbreaking loss we've had in recent years. I think every ND fan could probably say the same wherever they happened to be watching the game. In terms of most devastating losses, that one might be right up there at the top.
And yet as I walked out of the stadium, I felt strangely optimistic about what I had seen out there on the field. Michigan fans were giving us some of the usual taunts that you would expect following a brutal loss in a hostile environment, but I felt like ND had nothing to be ashamed of. We had really battled, played just about as well as we could offensively, and looked like a quality football team for most of the afternoon. I was, dare I say, proud of our effort. Honestly, what else could you ask out of guys like Clausen and Floyd and Armando Allen and Kyle McCarthy and others?? Just about everyone on this team laid it all on the line. ND-Michigan is always wacky with it coming early in the year, and losing a game up there is nothing to really be ashamed of when we played our guts out and did enough to win that game.
But as we got into the car and started driving home and allowed the game to settle in for a bit, the distaste about letting a game slip away that we should have won really started getting to me. This wasn't your father's Michigan. We lost to an unranked Michigan team that went 3-9 last year and was starting a freshman quarterback.This was a Michigan team that has been ravaged by roster problems over the last year or so and has nowhere near the talent that we have accumulated in the last five years. This was supposed to be our year. This was supposed to be the year when the Irish started winning these types of games and putting teams away. How could we lose that game?? How was the game even that close??
Of course, my thoughts eventually always circle back to one person: Charles Joseph Weis.
Look, I think some of the Charlie criticism and demands to fire him are an overreaction. NDNation is an abomination. If you don't think this team is significantly better this year, you're being irrational. Charlie has done a lot of good with this program. Overall, this team definitely looks improved from last year, and some of the problems of the past are now looking like team strengths. The running game looked phenomenal on Saturday. Wasn't that the big complaint about Weis?? That we couldn't run the ball?? When you look at the amount of young talent that he has brought into this program and compare it to what we had before he came here, there's really no comparison. There are NFL players up and down this roster, and some of them are first round picks. When was the last time we had this much talent?? Floyd is an absolute superstar, Clausen is a star, Tate is a star, Armando Allen is suddenly looking like a man possessed, the line is playing better, the young depth is really good. 4-5 years ago, you couldn't even come up with three guys on the team who would be someday playing on Sunday. Now it's like fifteen guys.
But at what point does all this positive momentum start translating into wins??!! When is Charlie Weis going to win a big ball game??
It just seems like we can't put it together as a team. We step up in one area, and then fall apart in another area. Some games it's defense, some games it's mental toughness, some games it's special teams, some games it's the offense, some games it's turnovers, some games it's stupid penalties. The bottom line is this: WE KEEP LOSING.
The same excuses year after year are wearing thin. We made these exact same excuses last year when we lost to North Carolina. "Just wait, this team is going to turn it on!! Look at how potent the offense is!! We ran the ball better!" People were saying the same things after the North Carolina game that they are now.
This game felt like a carbon copy of the UNC game from last year. We took control early, looked like the better team for 30 minutes, Weis gets outcoached in the 3rd quarter by head coaches who made better adjustments (more on that later), we lost our lead, and then we had to go into scramble mode to get back into the game. Valiant comeback by our players, but we should have never needed a comeback effort in either game.
If this had been Davie who had lost this game, we would be killing him. KILLING HIM. "Davie can't manage the clock! Davie's teams are too undisciplined and get too many penalties!! Why are we getting excessive celebration penalties when we should be closing out the game??" I remember it. I was there at ND at the time. If this was Davie or Willingham blowing the clock management or getting outadjusted in the second half, we'd be crucifying him. Remember the 1999 season where we killed Davie for losing the Michigan and Purdue games in bizarre fashion?? People still talk about those games like Davie killed their children. And those Michigan and Purdue teams were far better squads than they are now. Drew freaking Brees was Purdue's QB in 1999.
It's amazing to me how much the standards have dropped at ND. I know it's encouraging to see the team playing better, but how about winning the game while we're at it?? You'd think Charlie Weis lost to a late 1990s loaded Michigan team the way people are talking about this game. MICHIGAN ISN'T ANY GOOD!! Their defense is weak, they have a freshman qb, and they have no depth. We talk up these mediocre teams that beat us like Georgia Tech and UNC, and then we look back and they're 7-5/8-4 on the year. That's what will probably happen to Michigan. They are a very flawed team. A really good team would have beaten them by three touchdowns.
And yet, I keep hearing the same stuff. "PATIENCE!! Charlie will come around! Maybe he'll win out!!!"
My response is this. When are we going to win some ballgames??
He's 3-7 in his last 10 games against BCS schools. And one of those wins was over an 0-12 Washington team. The other ones were over Purdue and Stanford. He's 11-18 in his last 29 games. Read that last sentence again. 11-18!! Are you kidding me?? When did we turn into Minnesota?? When did we become Iowa State?? Unless we're playing Nevada or Hawaii or Navy or some other mid-major, we lose the game. Isn't there a pattern developing at this point?? WHO HAS HE BEATEN?? Are we paying him $4.2 million a year to beat Nevada and Stanford??
And this was a game that we actually played well in and were up for. We were cranked up for Michigan like we usually are early in the year. What happens when we lay our traditional 2-3 eggs as the season goes along like we've done every year under Weis?? What happens when we don't show up ready to play against somebody like Pitt or BC?? If we can't beat a mediocre Michigan team when we actually played well, why would there be any confidence that we're going to suddenly get red hot and win out?? Does anyone really think we're going to play 60 minutes of great football week in and week out from here on out?? I hope I'm wrong, but I'm skeptical.
Michigan State apparently is horrible and lost to a MAC team, but you KNOW they are going to be up for ND in South Bend, especially coming off that awful loss. If we come out flat or don't take them seriously or just aren't up for the game for whatever reason (and we've seen this happen every single year of the Weis era), we'll lose that game.
I'm just ready for some results out of Charlie Weis. You're the head coach of Notre Dame. You make $4 million a year. You have a veteran team with returning starters everywhere and juniors and seniors all over the field. Yes, you're a good recruiter, but ND should always get good players no matter who the coach is. WIN A GAME!!
Charlie Weis is not the head coach at Missouri. He's not the head coach at Iowa. The goal isn't to win 8 games and play in the Alamo Bowl. He's the head coach at NOTRE DAME. The 2nd winningest program of all time. The goal is to win a championship or to be really close, especially when you have a team as loaded as he has right now with veterans everywhere. Losing 7 of your last 10 games against BCS conference schools (several of who were terrible) is not acceptable at ND.
Losses happen, but when are we going to win a game like this one?? Michigan may very well turn out to be a good team this year, but what does that say about Charlie Weis that a second year coach has rebuilt his program quicker than we have?? WEIS IS IN HIS FIFTH YEAR!! FIFTH!! And he's losing to Rich Rodriguez in RR's second year at Michigan with a roster that is still in completely turmoil and has no depth?? Are you kidding me?? Michigan has a SECOND YEAR HEAD COACH, and they are already beating us. Their learning curve has ramped up quickly, and they're probably only going to get better as they get more depth on defense and continue to get more familiar with their offensive scheme. Michigan has already gotten to our level in RR's second year, and they'll probably be passing us by in short order. That's really sad. Weis is in his fifth year, and we're still mediocre. Michigan is also mediocre, but they've gotten to mediocre from horrible and probably will be good to very good by next year.
And if this team goes on to rally from here and play great football the rest of the year, I will be as happy as anyone. I'm not advocating that we fire Charlie Weis at all. Maybe this team really is different, and last week was a speed bump on the way to a big year and a bowl win. For all we know, next Saturday will be the start of a 10 game winning streak. It's only week three with lots of football left to determine his fate.
Charlie has a chance to right the ship, but he has lost the benefit of the "In Charlie We Trust" deference. He has already coughed up a game that he should have won, and I think we need to be prepared for this happening again over the course of the season. Obviously I hope I'm wrong and that we end up at 10+ wins and don't have to worry about Weis' job security, but I don't want to be sitting at 7-5/8-4 at the end of the year and Swarbrick gets caught with his pants down because he doesn't have any plan on what to do about the head coach's future at Notre Dame. We have to be ready, and we should start thinking about the backup plan now. Swarbrick, that is your job. If this team lays down for Weis and collapses down the stretch again, you better be ready to do something about it. If you aren't, you're Kevin White with a law degree. Those are the stakes. There are lots of coaches who could come right in next year and win a BCS bowl game with this roster or maybe more. We need to be prepared to find that guy if it comes to that.
---I swear I will get to some positive thoughts at some point, but here's where I thought this game was lost.
Defense and special teams-- Just backbreaking efforts from our defense and special teams. Both units came up small on Saturday, but we've seen it too many times in recent years to really be surprised by it.
Special teams was a letdown. The punting game is not there, we missed a field goal, gave up a touchdown run, and the kickoffs don't get to the end zone. In college football, if you lose on special teams, you better win the other two phases. With our defense playing as poorly as it did, we needed to make up for it in special teams. We didn't.
Maust doesn't have a strong leg. That's pretty obvious at this point. The guy never rips off a monster punt, and he never gets it clean. We don't have anyone better on the roster?? Tausch will probably be fine this year, but that missed field was a huge momentum shift that got their crowd really fired up. And he doesn't kick it to the end zone. Michigan's kicker did it several times. Why can't we do it?? It cost us field position all game.
As for the defense, for all of the changes on this staff, how is this defense still not able to stop anyone when it counts?? We've brought in Tenuta, Corwin Brown, Randy Hart, recruits all over the place, big time secondary, and yet our defense got torched by a freshman QB and a paper thin roster that had very little major experience.
IT'S YEAR FIVE!!! How is our defense this mediocre?? STILL!! Great coaches bring a great defense by year five. Nick Saban had a great defense in year two. Pete Carroll...same. Urban Meyer...same. Our defense is pedestrian.
Our fans haven't seen a good defense in so long that we forgot what it means to have a good defense. Good defenses win games for you that maybe you shouldn't win. Good defenses overcome the bad breaks because they refuse to let the other team score. We wilt in EVERY GAME on defense. We lay down when it gets tough. We turn freshman qbs into household names.
Did our defensive line have even one sack?? I'll have to check on the replay. Our secondary and linebackers weren't all that much better. Tenuta did nothing to get to Forcier, and we also got gashed on the run in the 3rd quarter. All in all, we didn't get nearly enough stops, and we're nowhere near a championship level defense.
Charlie Weis is a very good offensive mind who loves to win pretty, but that doesn't win games. Defense wins you games. More importantly, defense wins you championships. I'd rather win games than play like a WAC team.
Look at USC. Yes, they run a pro style offense that can be very explosive, but they win games with their defense. PERIOD. Pete Carroll is a defensive coach who grew up at the knee of guys who won with defense. USC's defense controls games, gets their offense field position, and makes teams tentative. They might score 30 points in a lot of games, but the key wins for them are those 17-10 games that they pull out against teams like Cal and Oregon and Saturday against Ohio State. Go back and look at their scores through the years. Those are the games that we'd lose. We'd score 24+ points but give up 31 and lose.
Was the officiating horrible?? No doubt about it. But you gotta win the game!! I don't care how bad the refs were. It doesn't mean our defense had to completely lay down. It doesn't mean our special teams had to stink. The refs were bad and really hurt us, but sometimes you gotta overcome the refs. That's what great teams do. That's what USC does. That's what Alabama does. We gotta get to that point.
Adjustments at halftime --
The worst coaching error for me is that Weis got outadjusted at halftime. We had that game in the bag, and Weis let it slip out of our hands. Michigan was completely gassed and on the ropes, their fans were demoralized, and we did nothing at halftime to make sure that we put that game to bed.
From what I could tell at the game, Rich Rodriguez came out with several new wrinkles offensively and defensively to start the second half. They brought more blitzes early in the 3rd quarter to get to Clausen, stiffened up against the run, and they ganged up on the screen pass. It was just enough to throw us off for 2-3 possessions, but that was all they needed to get a big lead.
Offensively, they went to the ground game, and we weren't ready for it. Minor started gashing us with those off tackle runs. We eventually adjusted and regained our footing, but the damage had already been done. Suddenly, our 20-17 lead had turned into an 11 point deficit.
You can talk about playcalling and all the other stuff, but that lost us the game right there. It was practically a carbon copy of the North Carolina game. Butch Davis did the same thing. They made adjustments, got to Clausen, threw us off for about 3-4 possessions, and cranked up their running game. Suddenly a 17-7 lead turned into a loss. The same thing happened yesterday against Michigan. Weis getting outcoached by a better coach.
As a Bengals fan, I've seen this a thousand times with Marvin Lewis. Marvin isn't the worst coach in the world, but he routinely coughs up games in the second half by not making adjustments and losing games late with bad game management. Sound familiar?? Marvin goes into the locker room, tells the boys how great they're playing, and to keep it up in the second half. Meanwhile, John Harbaugh has made a couple adjustments to his defense, throws in a couple wrinkles offensively, and there's your ball game. A game that looked very winnable turns into a loss down the stretch.
The 3rd quarter is the most underrated quarter in football. Lots of games and lost there. We routinely lose the 3rd quarter, and we routinely fail to put teams away in the 3rd quarter.
Probably the most controversial moment in the game was the decision by Weis to pass late in the game when we had the ball and the lead with only two minutes to go. The first play was a bomb to Tate, and the second was an out route to Shaq Evans (who was in for Floyd).
I think it's being overdone. ND fans are overfocusing on the end of the game (as usual). Weis felt like he had to get a first down, and he figured he would put it in Jimmy's hands to get it. I get that. Armando Allen was hurt. Gray had fumbled. He didn't trust anyone else at that point, so might as well throw to get the first down. I thought the bomb to Tate was dumb because it wouldn't have accomplished anything even if we had completed it, but it's one play out of an entire game. There were far worse things that happened in this game than that sequence. The other play to Evans was a perfectly fine play, but Evans just couldn't get to the spot in time. He's a freshman. It's a tough spot to jump in for Floyd right there. Floyd would have definitely made that catch, and we'd be celebrating right now.
Then again, this is who Charlie Weis is. He wanted to win it the "Charlie Weis Way" with a lot of gutsy play calling and razzle dazzle. Weis is like the guy in your fantasy draft who drafts all sleepers. It gets you a lot of oohs and aahs, but then you finish 9th in a 12 team league. That's Weis in a nutshell. The recruiting and the flashy offensive play is fun, but he loses games. That's what he does.
Ok, now for some things about the game that I thought went very well:
Armando Allen -- UNREAL. 21 carries for 139 yards. Averaged 6.6 yards a carry. Without a doubt the best game he has ever played and one of the most inspired performances out of an ND running back in a long time. I take back everything I have ever said about Armando Allen not being able to break tackles or explode past contact. This guy was a warrior. I didn't know he had it in him. He is a legitimate feature back all of the sudden. I found myself getting upset when he wasn't in the game.
That's the thing that's so frustrating about this game. We actually did a lot of things really well that have been weaknesses in the past. We averaged 5.1 yards on the ground. Our line played really well from what I could tell. We were opening up holes that weren't there the last couple years. It seems like Verducci is making a difference with this group.
It's stuff like that that gives me some hope about where this team could be headed. Armando Allen looks like a stud back now. I hope he keeps that up.
Michael Floyd -- Just a spectacular game from him. Every Michigan fan we sat near said he's one of the best receivers they've seen in college football. I agree. He's the best ND receiver I've ever personally watched. I don't see how he's not a first round pick whenever he decides to come out. He is going to put up some monster numbers this year.
Hard to complain about Golden Tate either even though he had a couple crucial drops. Golden Tate is a warrior. When Golden Tate gets the ball, he is almost impossible to tackle right away. I'll take him on my team any day of the week. He's a college receiver. You can't catch them all. 9 catches for 115 yards and 2 tds. Absurd numbers.
Jimmy Clausen -- 336 yards passing, 3 tds, and no INTs in a very hostile environment. 110,000 fans in the Big House, and he led us to big drive after big drive. How can anyone even think about complaining about that?? Jimmy Clausen is a great player. It's indisputable. There are very few QBs with his combination of arm strength and accuracy. He can fling the ball all over the field with no real problem.
He started out a little slow (probably just a little too pumped up), but he was spectacular for most of the game. With Jimmy Clausen running the show, we are a threat to score at any time. The Michigan fans in the stands were legitimately terrified of what he was doing out there.
Again, credit to Charlie Weis for recruiting these guys and building this type of offensive firepower. We have NFL talent all over the offense, and Weis is the guy who deserves that credit.
Kyle McCarthy -- Easily the MVP of the defense so far. KMac is a gamer.
Some other thoughts on guys/developments with this team:
Ethan Johnson-- Gotta get this guy out of the DT position. He's lost there. Ethan Johnson would be a dominant defensive end, but he's not a defensive tackle. I think it's time to just give one of the other DTs a shot and move Ethan Johnson back to end. That's the biggest change I'd like to see from a personnel standpoint. This defensive line needs to get much tougher if we're going to win 10 games this year.
Kerry Neal -- Can someone put an A.P.B on Kerry Neal?? Has he made a tackle yet?? Man, I thought he was going to be an absolute star when he first showed up at ND. He's done nothing for over a year.
Te'o-- Any reason why Te'o wasn't in there more?? I haven't watched the replay, but I didn't notice him out there. Te'o is a difference maker. I'd start him from here on out. I don't care if it's a running down or a passing down. He's one of our best athletes and needs to be on the field.
Brian Smith -- Man, I like this guy's spirit and all, but when is he ever going to step up in a big game and make some plays?? He's great against Navy and Nevada and teams like that, but I never hear his name in the big games. He's like the new Victor Abiamiri. Abiamiri would have like 5 sacks against Stanford, and then do nothing in the big games. Smith is starting to get like that a little bit. I'd like to see him have a great game against Michigan State next week.
Darius Fleming-- I thought he played great Saturday. I feel like I heard his name a lot out there. He looks like an athlete and someone who likes to get physical. I'm encouraged by what I've seen out of him so far.
Secondary -- Our secondary is getting a lot of heat, but part of it has been that the defensive line and linebackers aren't getting any pressure. We don't get any sacks. DBs can't cover guys forever.
Tenuta -- Not sure what to make of Tenuta so far as the ND defensive coordinator, but Saturday was not a good day for him. Where was the plan to rattle Forcier a little bit?? It's still way too easy to move the football on our defense.
Michigan -- Might as well get some thoughts in on Michigan's team while I'm here. First of all, I think Michigan is going to be great someday. They have a really bright future. But Michigan is not as good as they're now being talked about. Their defense is lousy. It's worse than our defense. The only good players on their entire defense are Donovan Warren and Brandon Graham. Everyone else looked mediocre at best to me. Our offensive line was much bigger than their d-line.
Plus, Michigan has no depth. Those things might change as they build up their roster, but Michigan is a thin team with a bad defense. They're going to wear down.
I will say that Tate Forcier impressed the heck out of me. I don't know what else you could say other than that. For a true freshman, he has an incredible feel for the game. He doesn't make mistakes, he finds little openings to give himself room to throw, he keeps his eyes up field, and he's accurate. He's just one of those guys who makes plays.
Once he puts some weight on his frame, he'll be even more dangerous, especially running the ball. He's not a runner per se, but he's kind of a sneaky runner. I'm trying to figure out who he reminds me of. Drew Brees?? Jeff Garcia??
I'm expecting Michigan's to be a force of nature as they get more and more familiar with how to run it. Once he gets all the pieces that he needs, they'll be adding more and more wrinkles to what they do now (which is already pretty dynamic).
For now, I still say they're a 7-8 win team. Our fans always have a tendency to overrate teams that we lose to. Remember the people thinking that Georgia Tech was a BCS team in 2007 and that Tashard Choice was a Heisman frontrunner?? How did that work out?? And same with UNC last year and Purdue in 2004 and MSU in 2005 among others. It happens every year. Beating ND is no longer a guarantee that you are an elite team. I think Michigan will have plenty of stumbles as the season goes along.
With that said, Rich Rodriguez has given that program an edge and a spark that they didn't used to have under Lloyd Carr. He REALLY impressed me on Saturday. The Forcier punt to our 2 yard line, the creative offensive plays, the halftime adjustments, the game management at the end. We had them outmanned, but they made the plays to win the game. I think Rich Rodriguez is a very very good head coach. I have always thought highly of him, but his strategic skills really impressed me on Saturday.
What Rich Rodriguez has done in two years to completely transform the Michigan program is remarkable. It's now his program. He is an aggressive coach who attacks and plays to win. It seems to rub off on his players. I think they will be formidable for years to come.
Michigan is suddenly the most interesting team in the Big Ten and may even be the torchbearer for the league going forward. Everyone else in the Big Ten is stuck in 1974. Meanwhile, there's Michigan playing aggressive, attacking football that resembles what you see with the more cutting edge programs. It's too early to say definitively that Michigan is back, but my guess is that's where they are headed.
The Big House -- Had to finish this post with some thoughts on the new look Michigan Stadium. If you've ever been there before in the past, you would be shocked at how much different it is with this new renovation project. The look is different, and the intimidation factor is completely different. Before, the noise at Michigan Stadium would just evaporate into the air. You'd look out among a mass of humanity with 100,000 people, but the stadium was never loud. I've been in 35,000 seat stadiums that were louder than Michigan Stadium before the renovation project.
Now?? The place is freakin loud. That was the loudest stadium I've ever been to. There were times when I couldn't even hear. Those luxury boxes bottle up all the noise inside the stadium now and give it more of a straight up and down feel than the giant bowl that it used to be. Not only are there more people than ever before (110,000 on Saturday), but it got really noisy.
The other thing that really cranks things up is the music they play over the loudspeaker. I don't know how long they've been doing that, but now they play Michigan-themed rock/rap songs over the loudspeaker at key moments in the game. Pretty much anyone with a Michigan theme to the song. Journey (born and raised in South Detroit), Eminem, and 1-2 others that I can't think of right now. When they started playing music, the fans really got energized.
When I first heard it, I was appalled. Michigan is playing rock music at the Big House?? What happened to the band?? I didn't drive all the way up to Ann Arbor to hear Eminem and Journey. I drove up to hear Dr. Kenneth Dye crank the hits for the ND band and battle it out with the Michigan band. A little Notre Dame Victory March versus Hail to the Victors. You could hardly hear the Michigan band. The ND band still comes loud and clear, but that's to be expected. The ND band is like the USC of bands. We always bring it in the big games. I don't think the ND band has ever been drowned out.
One thing that is funny is that Michigan does a lot of the same stuff that you see at ND Stadium with the constant athlete salutes and recognition of random teams from the 30s and 40s during timeouts. No one lives off their past like Michigan and ND. I kept waiting for them to introduce the Dining Hall staff.
Anyway, just thought that was interesting. I don't think I would ever want ND to pipe in jock jams, but I will acknowledge that it works. It gave Michigan's fans new life on multiple occasions. I would go so far as to say that it made a legitimate difference in the outcome of the game. If ND started playing Journey and other random songs that get people singing and dancing and fired up, it would make ND a louder and more intense stadium. I'm as much for tradition as anyone and don't want to water down the ND Stadium experience, but I also am in favor of anything that gives ND an edge. If we started doing it and ND fans went crazy and it gave the team a lift, I might come around on the idea.
Final thoughts here I promise. All is not lost. ND can recover from this. We are a better team this year. We did a lot of things really well against Michigan. It was devastating to lose that game, but I didn't come away from the game feeling like we are falling apart as a program. It may end up being a speed bump on the way to a very good year.
Time to gear up for Michigan State.